“OH, my dear Jane, you cannot tell my feelings when I go to bed,” wrote Robert Kitching from the condemned cell in York castle.

“I think about you, and I keep thinking there are not many more nights for me to go to bed alive, and when I wake, my dear wife, it is soon in my head about me being condemned to death.

“My dear Jane, I don’t want to say anything about it, but it will be a sad morning when it comes.”

Despite his soft-hearted, emotional words, Kitching was a hook-handed police murderer, sentenced to death for “one of the most shocking crimes ever perpetrated in North Yorkshire”.

On September 19, 1890, he had been drinking for hours in the Leeming Bar Hotel (now the Corner House hotel), leaving his horse and cart outside, unlit, on the busy Great North Road. As dark fell, Sgt James Weedy, of Bedale police, had asked Kitching outside to remove it. Kitching had reluctantly complied, swearing oaths and chuntering his usual bad-tempered threats against the policeman who, six months earlier, had reported him for using his cart as an unlicensed taxi.

Over the years, the pair had had many run-ins. Sgt Weedy was an exemplary policeman - “one of the smartest and most useful members of the North Yorkshire force”, according to his Chief Constable. He was 43, a father of 12 who lived in “a porched house” next door to the Black Ox Hotel in Leeming village (the Black Ox is today a private residence but there is still a porch on the house beside it).

Whereas Kitching, 31, was a wrong ‘un. He had been declared bankrupt in Boroughbridge five years earlier and had returned to his native Leeming where a gun had exploded, taking off his left hand. This caused him to wear a hook in his sleeve – an implement with which he is said, in drink, to have gouged men’s faces and even ripped their eyes out.

The two men lived within eyesight of one another, and on that fatal night, after closing time, Kitching had gone home to find his gun, telling his wife Jane that he was going to blow Weedy’s brains out. She was so terrified that she pulled their three young children in their nightdresses out of their bed, wrapped the baby in a shawl, and fled. They knocked up a neighbour, Annie Wade, and all six piled into her bed, extinguished their candles and lay there in the dark, waiting...

“After listening in nervous fear for a while, the quietness of the hour was suddenly broken by the explosion of the gun,” said The Northern Echo.

All Leeming – then a teeming village on the Great North Road – heard the shot, but no one came out to see the cause. Most just shrugged and thought that it was Kitching shooting at his wife once again.

At dawn, after a night of incessant rain, the first travellers on the highway found the policeman’s body lying just outside Kitching’s gate. Sgt Weedy had been shot at close range in the left shoulder, the bullet exiting through his neck. Death had been instantaneous.

Kitching was located at about 10am on Richmond market, selling plums with his father-in-law Edmund Caygill. He was arrested.

Weedy’s funeral was held the following Tuesday, at Leeming village church, attended by 1,200 people. They donated £400 to the fund at Backhouses’ Bank to help his 12 fatherless children, ten of whom were aged under 10, with the youngest, Fred, being just five months old.

Kitching’s trial was held at the Yorkshire Assizes on December 9. He pleaded “not guilty”, and at first claimed the shooting was an accident. Then he claimed that Weedy had struck the first blow with a stick. But when his father-in-law, Edmund Caygill, with whom he had spent the chaotic hours between the shooting and his arrest on the market, was unable – or unwilling -- to corroborate either story, the jury quickly found him guilty – although they added a “recommendation for mercy”.

Justice Mr Lawrance – known as “Long” Lawrance due to the unusual length of his deliberations – donned the black cap and was surprisingly abrupt. “I will forward to the proper quarter the recommendation to mercy, but I can hold out no hope that that will lead to any commutation of your sentence,” he told him.

The Echo reported: “His lordship, having earnestly advised the prisoner to avail himself of the ministrations of those with whom he would be brought into contact, passed sentence of death in the usual form.”

The Home Secretary dismissed all pleas for clemency, and as the day of justice fast approached, the condemned man bitterly blamed his father-in-law for not fabricating an alibi for him.

In a letter to his wife, he wrote: “I don’t know what your father has against me. He could have been the means of saving my life and you from being a widow, and my dear little children from being fatherless.

“What does he think to himself now he has got me put to death, and his own daughter left a widow, and four poor little children fatherless.

“But my dear and loving wife, if I could only get back to you I would lead a different life to what I have done. This is a dark Christmas for us.”

The New Year was no better. January 2 was the day of execution. Kitching passed his last night sleeplessly, lying restlessly on his bed for two hours before rising at 6.30am when breakfast was taken to him. He couldn’t eat, but sipped at a cup of tea.

He attended a church service at 7am, concealed from the other inmates by a screen, and then was ready to make a confession.

“Kitching made a communication to the prison chaplain in which he said that he took the gun, loaded it, and went out of the house with the full intention of shooting Weedy, though, at the same time, he said he had the half hope that he would not meet him,” said the Echo’s sister paper, the Darlington & Stockton Times. “He covered Weedy with the gun as he came up to the gate and pulled the trigger, but it missed fire. Afterwards, as Weedy closed with him, he fired directly at him.”

At 7.57am, with just three minutes of life remaining, executioner James Billington, of Preston (a former Sunday school teacher who had become obsessed with the science of the drop), entered the cell and found Kitching praying on his knees.

“The governor touched the culprit on the shoulder and he at once rose to his feet and submitted passively to the process of pinioning, though he trembled violently,” said the D&S.

“The culprit walked firmly to the scaffold where he took his stand with a warder on either side to support him in the event of his nerve giving way. This precaution was, however, unnecessary, the unhappy man standing unassisted while his legs were pinioned and the operations of drawing the cap over his face and adjusting the noose were performed.

“Just as the lever was being drawn by the executioner, Kitching reeled, but the trap fell, the rope immediately tightened, and the culprit met his doom. Billington allowed a drop of 7ft 6ins, Kitching being a man of slight build, and weighing only about nine stone.

“Death appeared to be instantaneous and as far as could be seen not a muscle quivered after the drop.”

The D&S concluded its coverage by printing in full Kitching’s last letter to his wife, Jane, who visited him regularly in his cell.

He wrote: “I should like to have your company as long as I have to live. I often wonder what will become of you and my dear little darlings with you. It breaks my heart to think that I have to be parted from you. I think more about being parted from you than I do about being put to death.

“O what will become of you and my little ones?

“Oh Jane, it is more than I can bear, but it has to be.”

Despite his callous crime and despite his attempts to blame his father-in-law, Kitching’s letter is quite heart-breaking to read.

But there is an abrupt change of tone for the market gardener’s last sentences.

“If you can, you might bring about three plants of carnations, good, strong, large of different colours. I think those will be as good as any that are nearest the trod. These are for the master of the prison. He is very kind to me. Don’t forget, my darling.”

We stumbled across this story recently when talking to a gentleman whose family had opened a market gardening business in Leeming. Apparently, they had spotted a gap in the market – “something to do with the murder of a policeman”, said our informant – which we now know was caused by the execution of the hook-handed police killer.